“The St. Clare Seed Library is ‘growing,’” says its library director Elise Carey with a wry smile, as she opens an old card catalog to display some of the choices. The wooden drawers house varieties of heirloom seeds — tomatoes, peppers, squash, herbs and flowers, both perennials and annuals.
“Like book libraries,” Carey explains, “we have best-sellers — tomatoes, sugar snap peas, and pumpkins. We have old seeds, mysteries, history, foreign seeds, rare ones. From the new gardener to the experienced steward, there are seeds to fit your garden.
“And all the seeds are free to check out.”
St. Clare Seed Library began in 2017, within the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls’ library, privately owned, but open to the public. All of its seeds are donated — the vegetables and flowers have grown in this area for generations, so they are Minnesota-hardy, even if they originated from other countries.
In a book library, patrons take books and return them, she said. In a seed library, they take seeds, grow them and return them.
A diverse collection
Each seed has a story and a history, Carey said. When seeds are donated, she asks a series of questions to find out as much as she can.
“We get the story — what variety and information about growing it — and a family history — who brought it, from what country and when,” she said. “It’s fun to get seeds that bear such great fruit. Plus we get to taste the past.”
Sometimes, the specifics aren’t known by the donor, so the questions continue. “If it’s a tomato, I find out if it’s large or small, the color, if it’s best for eating or making sauce.”
Last December, Galen Gruber donated green bean seeds that had been grown by his family for generations, Carey said.
“He didn’t know what these tasty beautiful beans were called, only that his grandmother had planted them, and before that, her grandmother planted them.”
He dubbed them “Loretta Petermeier Green Bean Seeds” and donated them in honor of Irene (Petermeier) Gruber.
Others seeds are mysteries.
“We have ‘seed stewards’— people who will grow some of our ‘mystery seeds’ and return them, enabling us to gain more information for successful growing and seed saving,” Carey said.
The collection also includes rare seeds which are given to seed stewards to build the inventory before they are available to everyone. Rare seeds include the Japanese Futsu pumpkin and Cave Beans, estimated at 1,500 years old, offspring of seeds found in a ceramic pot at an archaeological dig.
“We have the ‘grandseeds’ of those beans,” Carey said.
When a certain stock starts to get low, like the Hutterite beans, Carey might not offer that until a seed steward can increase the amount. But there are plenty of others, she said.
Caring for creation
Because of their value in caring for God’s creation, the Franciscan sisters were ideal hosts for the seed library, Carey said. Saving seeds, especially heirloom seeds, promotes biodiversity, and develops a regionally adapted seed stock. The library provides public ownership of seeds which increases the knowledge of horticulture and sustainability.
Having a seed library also helps families, she said. “Parents find that children who grow vegetables, like cherry tomatoes or sugar snap peas, are eager to taste those veggies. When children plant seeds, they wait and wait, and forget. All of a sudden, this little leaf sprouts up and they watch it change. When the fruit comes, they’ll eat whatever it is. Parents might not be able to invest in seeds, but they can get them from us for free.”
St. Clare Seed Library is open three days a week, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Patrons must check in with Carey who will help people obtain the seeds they want and that will best fit their needs. She also makes sure patrons have instructions for growing and for harvesting the seeds.
“You don’t need a big plot of land,” Carey said, “just a bit of ground, a small raised bed, or even a few large pots or buckets. You could even take a bag of soil, cut holes in it and put potatoes in it. You’ll grow a lot of potatoes in that bag.”
With the St. Clare Seed Library, Minnesotans can discover greater diversity in their foods. And by growing heirloom varieties, they can feast on a bit of history.